OK, someone’s lying – or at least, shading the truth.
A few months ago I wrote about the rumor (second item) that Pick ’N Save stores in Brookfield pulled the Shepherd Express out of distaste for the newspaper’s lefty politics. Lou Fortis, the Shepherd’s owner and editor in chief, didn’t respond to several inquiries I made then, but Vivian King, spokeswoman for Pick ’N Save’s owner, Roundy’s Inc., insisted there was no political agenda.
“We have made the decision to remove all free publication racks from our stores so that we may better focus on serving our customers’ grocery needs,” she told me, adding that “this decision has nothing to do with content of any publication.”
Last week, Fortis took the issue public:
As many of you know, the Shepherd had been in all of the Pick 'n Save stores until early this April, when the Shepherd ran a cover endorsement of JoAnne Kloppenburg for Supreme Court justice. Within a day of the Shepherd's distribution of this endorsement throughout the community, Roundy's contacted the Shepherd Express and told us to immediately remove our newspapers from all five of its Brookfield Pick 'n Save stores. Now Roundy's is telling the Shepherd to remove our newspapers from all of its Pick n' Save stores.
In his open letter to readers, Fortis urged them to call Roundy’s “‘Chairman Bob’ (Mariano), who has always been a very reasonable person,” and “politely” ask the chain to restore Shepherd distribution at all of its stores.
I asked King again about the newest claim. Her answer was unequivocal:
“This account is false and leaves out many facts. Our decision was not political. We have removed all publications so that we can focus that space on our customers' grocery needs. Mr. Fortis is the one perpetuating this theory even though he knows our position.”
I ran that past Fortis, who responded: “If you read my letter you will see that I just stated the facts.”
And indeed, Fortis never outright accused Roundy’s of political retaliation, but the implication is quite clear.
Over the weekend, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin jumped in the fray, expanding on the Shepherd’s claim on Twitter and on Facebook, with a direct accusation of what Fortis had only implied – that negative coverage of Gov. Scott Walker and the endorsement of Joanne Kloppenburg for Supreme Court had prompted the grocery chain’s action.
The Facebook item got mixed response, with some DPW friends there calling for a Roundy’s boycott and others pointing to my earlier column and counseling restraint.
“The coincidence in timing that Mr. Fortis has laid out very specifically, and the aggressive way that his paper has covered the Walker Era, leaves us little room for doubt” as to the reasons for Roundy’s move, Graeme Zielinski, the Democrats’ communications director, said Tuesday. “We are confident in our claim and hopeful that Roundy's will bring back the Shepherd, which is vital reading to many of its customers as balance to the news coverage of this administration.”
So who’s telling the truth? The fact is, either side has a conceivable motive to distort the facts.
A company that did act on political grounds would risk huge backlash from customers who didn’t agree – and so might go to great lengths to conceal its real motives.
On the other hand, Louis Weisberg, editor of the Wisconsin Gazette, says that last spring, he was informed Roundy’s would be dropping all free papers. That moved the Gazette out of Roundy’s Copp’s stores in Madison where it had been distributed and forestalled his efforts to get the paper into Roundy’s stores here.
That suggests to me the Roundy’s decision probably wasn’t politically motivated.
Media Audit numbers in Fortis’s article make clear just how much he depends on the Roundy’s-owned outlets for distribution: 73 percent of the paper’s readers shop at Pick ’N Save or its sibling Metro Market, and it’s a good guess that many pick up their copy of the paper there.
So is it too cynical to think that the paper might imply political retribution in hopes of ratcheting up the pressure on Roundy’s to reverse a decision that was never based on politics at all?
For another perspective, check out Peter Wilt's blog post on Patch.com.
More on the JS police series
Now that it’s over, it’s possible to more fully assess the Journal Sentinel’s series on police officers who have violated the law.
Bruce Murphy’s column today points out the long history of friction between the newspaper and Police Chief Edward Flynn and how both news organizations and police departments can behave uncannily alike under fire.
I have long respected the newspaper’s investigative reporting efforts. The issues raised in the new series deserve attention, and the paper’s fight for public records is a worthy one. There are harrowing stories and grave questions raised by the entire enterprise.
Yet after reviewing it all, despite the volume of material and data, it falls short in ways that are all too familiar in these troubled times for journalism.
In his editorial rebuttal Sunday to the series, Flynn makes a valid point that the series never compares how the treatment of police officer violations has – or hasn’t – changed over the tenures of seven different chiefs. Yes, you can sort the newspaper’s nifty online database and figure some of that out yourself, only superficially. Much more analysis of this question would have lent the story greater weight.
Both in his editorial comment and in an interview with me last week, Flynn cites data to show discipline has gotten much tougher on his watch. Is that true? We don’t really know independent of his assertion – and that struck me as a significant hole.
That hole is all the larger because the paper makes the point that regardless of when they were disciplined the 93 officers it spotlighted remain on the force. That raises another question: Should Flynn at some point after his arrival have tried to fire them all? If not, then how is he to blame for the failings of past police administrations? Again, it’s an unanswered and unasked question.
Another hole was the absence of any comprehensive comparison with what happens elsewhere. One expert on police discipline issues, Roger Goldman at St. Louis University School of Law, told me last week that Wisconsin appears to set a much higher bar than other states for permanently decertifying police officers, “so therefore bad cops are in effect immunized if the department doesn't terminate them.”
Goldman, who read the first part of the JS series after I sent him a link, continued: “In many other states, the department has to report to the state the names of peace officers about whom it has reasonable suspicion the officers have committed a decertifiable offense. And some states specifically list spouse abuse, abuse of drugs and alcohol, sexual misconduct - the very misconduct set forth in the article you sent.”
Now, one interview isn’t enough for me to find out how Milwaukee or Wisconsin really stacks up against other jurisdictions. And as another expert told me, it may be true that no one handles these things very well. But that strikes me as a critical part of understanding the story – and a perspective missing that would help readers more fully assess the issue.
One story in the series does explain that in Wisconsin, police chiefs’ decisions on disciplining officers are subject to a civilian board. But the analysis of how that works – or doesn’t work – was superficial.
I do think both Flynn and District Attorney John Chisholm should have talked to the newspaper. If they were worried about the piece being one-sided, they would at least have had an opportunity to weigh in. By not doing so, they end up reinforcing the newspaper’s narrative. (Of course, as a reporter, I’m inevitably giving self-serving advice there.)
Yet the outcome of the whole project points to a larger hazard in pursuing the sort of aggressive investigative reporting that has made the Journal Sentinel’s Watchdog efforts so envied and admired by newspapers across the country.
The craft of journalism balances two conflicting values. One is being complete and fair to all sides and parties to an issue. The other is to make the story interesting and compelling to read. And sometimes the two seem to be mutually exclusive. The more complex a story becomes, the more shades of gray are introduced, the greater the risk that it will be seen as boring and ineffectual.
Too often, big journalistic institutions are unwilling to take a strong stand, instead falling back on tepid, neutral accounts that do little or nothing to serve the interests of the public or democracy. No one is holding that up as the model for good reporting.
Yet at a time when the very future of journalism as we know it appears to be an open question, the opposite may be just as worrisome: That in order to take that strong, clear stand and to avoid the sin of turning off readers, journalists may be less willing to acknowledge nuance, complexity and shades of gray that complicate the story – but also bring it closer to the truth.
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